Although a thing of the past, thanks to preservation societies the steam railway lives on. In this guide we share some photography tips to make the most of this magnificent form of transport.
Although locomotives are relatively large, it's often better to use a longer lens with your DSLR and shoot from a distance to avoid distorted features.
For this purpose a focal length of between 50mm and 100mm is ideal, although wider shots can be taken when the engine is on the platform or you want to include some surrounds when shooting as it arrives. Although the engine will only be travelling at speeds of up to 25mph you still need to be fairly quick to react to changing size as it approaches so a zoom lens is the best option as you won't really have time to change lenses so a range covering 28-105mm or thereabouts will be perfect.
If you're at a vantage point somewhere along the engine's route you could use a tripod with a pan head to follow and get perfectly aligned shots, although at a station this can get in the way of other platform viewers. In such cases a monopod would be a better choice.
If you decide to focus on the smaller detail hold a reflector or use a flash to fill light into the shadow areas. Use a polariser to reduce glare from shiny areas of the engine and its furnishings, plus it's worth taking a notepad to record the engine name / station/ track details for your cataloguing when you get home.
Some railway centres run steam throughout the year, others have special galas where people dress up at the event. Some specialise in the bygone years so the station will be festooned with interesting memorabilia that makes great photographic subjects. At stations such as Loughborough or Pickering, for example, you will find plenty to photograph including period posters, metal advertising boards, vintage clocks, luggage stacks, porter's trolleys, fire buckets, cycles, and old bench. Take some shots to fill the frame with these objects, but also include wider views with the surrounds to give the photo more depth and interest.
Watch your exposure often a dark engine against a bright white sky can fool the camera meter as can the large white puff of steam. To make sure you have detail in the shadows point the camera down and take a meter reading of the engine with no sky in the frame. Lock this exposure and readjust the view and shoot.
Pre-plan the best vantage points from your location using maps, and previous photographs as reference. Team up with a spotter and ask them the best viewpoints you may find it's a footpath or level crossing a few miles away from the main activity. On the North Yorkshire line for example there are various parking spots along the way that give open countryside views of the locos travelling between stations. A longer lens is needed to fill the frame.
Where To Stand
Shoot locomotives as they approach the station from a suitable vantage point. Catch them on a bend for more impressive shapes. Try to avoid getting spotters in the shot as that will data the photo. You may want to walk to the end of the platform to avoid this, but respect other photographers who may have set up earlier and you are now blocking their view. The front of the loco is the most important so make sure that's the sharpest point of focus.
Use bridges to get a higher viewpoint - the one at the station will provide invaluable to gain height over a potentially crowded platform.
Shots Of Steam
The best shots are when steam is bellowing out. This is more dramatic in winter when the ambient temperature is lower. If you can find a position where you are shooting into the you will get a lovely back lit effect where the steam and smoke is illuminated, more so with a long lens and in winter when the sun is lower so you're more likely to have a backlit scene.
Don't just photograph the whole engine. There are many interesting close ups to be taken. Use a polariser when shooting nameplates as the sun can glare off the painted plate and reduce contrast. Frame up on the wheels, lamps, inside the cab, smoke-box, piston rod etc. Steam coming from around the wheels always makes a good photo especially if you use a slower speed. Increase contrast and reduce saturation when processing for a more dramatic result.
Stations are full of colourful characters - look out for guards, station staff, ticket masters and engine drivers/stokers. Take pictures as they fire the engine, collect tickets, check the water, fill the coal wagon etc. If it's an event they will be dressed in historic costumes and these all make great portrait opportunities. Don't be afraid to take their photo they're used to is some are probably more photographed than some celebrities.